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No March Madness? For Those Headed to the N.B.A., That’s Just Fine.

todayMarch 21, 2021 1

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Markelle Fultz did not need March Madness. Neither did Luka Doncic, Ben Simmons and plenty of other basketball stars going back decades.

By the time Fultz and Simmons were drafted into the N.B.A., they had dazzled scouts, enchanted executives and probably appeared in the dreams of marketing wizards — even though they had played in college without logging a minute in the N.C.A.A.’s Division I men’s basketball tournament.

Fultz, the Orlando Magic guard who became the top pick of the 2017 draft after one season at the University of Washington, said in an interview last year: “It could have been counted against me, but it didn’t. I didn’t really hear a lot about it.”

The N.B.A. will soon welcome several star hopefuls who have the tournament similarly missing from their résumés. Some, of course, will have not played college basketball at all. Others will have spent some time on campuses, but none in Indiana for this tournament. Indeed, by some predictions, at least one-third of the players selected in the first round of the draft later this year will not have appeared in games played these past few days.

Jonathan Kuminga, who is expected to be among the first draft selections, skipped college and is playing in the N.B.A.’s developmental league, as is Jalen Green, another player who could go early on draft night. Another elite prospect, forward Ziaire Williams, starred at Stanford, which did not make the 68-team tournament field. For the first time since the Ford administration, Duke and Kentucky, which so often seem like farm programs for the N.B.A., both missed the tournament. Other top draft contenders are playing abroad.

But for all of the attention the N.C.A.A. tournament will capture over the next two weeks, missing it won’t drag down anyone’s draft stock, analysts said.

The world’s finest basketball players often come under the scrutinizing eyes of N.B.A. officials as middle schoolers, and franchises chart their progress through their stints with high school, college and international teams. So while the N.C.A.A. tournament may be a grand stage — of bracketology, big television broadcasts and ordinarily packed arenas coast to coast — in scouting terms missing March Madness amounts to little more than missing a few games.

“You’re not thinking about the N.C.A.A. tournament,” Vinny Del Negro, a former coach of the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Clippers, said of how teams evaluate players. “You’re thinking, ‘We have an opportunity to get this kid with incredible gifts and talents and get him on our roster.’”

He allowed, though, that “the more eyeballs, the more film, the more comfort level you have as a scout, as a front-office executive with that player, obviously it helps the comfort level of that decision.”

In the five drafts before the coronavirus pandemic, an average of 9.6 of the 30 first-round picks did not play in the N.C.A.A. tournaments immediately preceding their selections. (In 2020, the N.B.A. still held its draft, but the N.C.A.A. canceled its men’s tournament.) An outlier was 2016, when 15 players did not compete in the college tournament, in part because seven of the men chosen in the first round came from international teams. Philadelphia took Simmons at No. 1 that year, after his college team, Louisiana State, failed to reach the N.C.A.A. tournament.

Fultz’s selection as the top pick came a year later, and Doncic’s, at No. 3 after playing for Real Madrid, in 2018.

“Talent is talent,” Del Negro said. “When you see a guy that can do certain things, that has an N.B.A. skill-set that can fit what you’re looking for and make your team talent level that much better, obviously you’re going to pinpoint the opportunities that are available.”

A few rough games, Del Negro and others said, will hardly derail a player’s N.B.A. ambitions, which might be good news for Cade Cunningham, the Oklahoma State star some analysts see as the top draft prospect in the tournament this year. He posted a weak first half in Oklahoma State’s first-round win over Liberty on Friday, though he finished with 15 points.

Of course, players and coaches said, a sterling tournament performance with millions of fans watching never hurts, either. Beyond boosting their professional prospects, memorable collegiate showings before big audiences can help players cultivate wider profiles and prominence that can invite lucrative sponsorships later.

Executives and players said they believed some people had inched up in drafts past because of stellar N.C.A.A. tournament outings.

Some pretournament mock drafts — reliable as they may or may not be — had De’Andre Hunter going somewhere in the picks from No. 11 to No. 15 in 2019, when Zion Williamson was the consensus to be the top pick. Then came Hunter’s star turn during Virginia’s national championship run. His biggest game was his last as a Cavalier: a career-high 27-point eruption in the title showdown, including the shot that led to overtime and the one that put Virginia ahead for good.

“If I could play good on that stage, then it definitely shows scouts or whatever that you’re the best,” Hunter said. “I feel like the tournament definitely helped me probably move up a couple draft spots and change the narrative of my game.”

He was the fourth pick.

Carmelo Anthony, the third pick of the 2003 draft after he was named the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament during his one season at Syracuse, similarly suggested that he still regarded the multiweek collegiate competition as an opportunity to make a final impression on teams.

“All eyes are on March Madness,” said Anthony, an investor in a new venture that plans to pay promising high school players salaries of at least $100,000 to skip college. “That is the time N.B.A. teams and scouts really get a chance to evaluate talent. Throughout the season, it is very hard to do — N.B.A. season is going on, N.C.A.A. season is going on, new stipulations with scouts and coaches. March Madness is where everyone is watching, so you are being exposed.”

Other athletes say the tournament can help players compete against a geographically diverse range of opponents.

“It was the first time I got to play against kids from different parts of the country who I wouldn’t normally get to play,” said Terrence Ross, who was drafted by Toronto at No. 8 in 2012, a year after he played in the tournament as a freshman at Washington. “Especially if other kids are classified as high draft picks, it kind of gives you something to compare and stack up against.”

A few years after he was as assured as a player could be that he did not need an N.C.A.A. tournament berth to go high in the draft, Fultz said he was disappointed that he had not been able to play in the event.

“I definitely wished I was there myself, being a competitor myself, and that’s where the best of the best are,” he said. “That’s where everyone gives you the best chance to get drafted.”

Kevin Draper contributed reporting.

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